My father has been gone for over 20 years. Tonight, my thoughts linger around the memories I have of the last months of his life.
When I was a nine year old boy I cried myself to sleep one night thinking that my father would die some day. I don’t know why I thought of my Dad dying. Kids think of a lot of deep subjects and no one thinks they do. But they do. It was a traumatic thought for a little boy who saw his Dad as his hero.
As I lay in my bed looking up at my model airplanes hanging from the ceiling above my head I asked something from God. I asked, “God, could you please let me be an old man, at least 39 years old, before my dad dies.” I didn’t think I could handle it if I wasn’t old. To a nine year old 39 was ancient.
I never forgot that night. The years went by and I grew up and parked that prayer in the recesses of my memory. Life continued to march on through the school years, meeting my wife, getting married, having kids, finding a career and simply living life. As the years went on so did the life of my father. He grew old and then he got sick from breathing in asbestos while working in the construction trade in his younger years.
Dad was a composite man, both rough and tender. For awhile he made his living hauling ice blocks into homes in the San Joaquin Valley during the Depression. He hauled ice between construction jobs during the week and then he fought in boxing matches on the weekends‚ the winner taking home 5 bucks. His years as a carpenter and hauling ice made a strong man out of him. He was part of the construction trade in the days when a lot of the work was done without power tools. His biceps looked like Pop-eye the cartoon character.
As the years went on the ministry took me to different cities. Mom and Dad followed us to the first of these places and then realized people who have a calling can end up moving. Mom and Dad stayed in Montana while I assumed a pastoral position in Oregon.
I recall the last Christmas Dad was alive. Jan and I and the kids piled into a little Cessna 172 and flew from the Oregon coast to Kalispell, Montana to spend Christmas with the family. Just before leaving Oregon I bought a 50 pound bag of fresh petite Yaquina Bay oysters and tossed them in the back of the plane. Dad loved oysters and I wanted this to be part of his Christmas joy. Flying up to Montana I knew Dad’s health was failing. The asbestos had joined forces with a life of cigarette smoking and this was robbing him of life and breath. I did not know that in 5 months I would return to preside over my father’s memorial service.
Our Christmas was great that year. I remember standing over the kitchen sink at my folks home eating oysters and laughing with my Dad and my brother. For the next few days a mound of shucked oyster shells began to grow in the vacant lot next to my parents home. I am sure that in a thousand years some archeologist will excavate that lot and swear that some native tribe must have lived there when the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean was a thousand miles inland. I was so full of oysters that Christmas that I never wanted to see another one ever again.
We had a great Christmas and then we up fired up the Cessna and flew back home. In April I got a call that Dad was not doing well. We flew back to Montana again to be with Dad and by now he was in the local hospital. It was strange not having him at home with Mom. For almost 50 years they had been inseparable like two friends created especially for the journey they had made together. It was good to see my father that first day. Part of me was afraid something might happen before I could get there.
The next morning I was awakened early, before the daylight came over the horizon, and distinctly heard these words in my heart, “Go to your Dad, now, and read him the 23rd Psalm.” I quickly dressed and grabbed a little New Testament with the Psalms that I have owned for 40 years and drove to his bedside.
Hospitals are not real busy places at 5:30 in the morning. I walked past the nurses station and into Dad’s room. I went over and gave him a kiss. For the last years of my Dad’s life I made a commitment to give my rough and tough, ex-boxer, Pop-eye armed dad, a kiss every time I saw him. If you think that is wimpy you wouldn’t dare say so in his presence. He loved it when his two sons embraced and kissed him. I learned from my Dad that real men learn to cry and show love. I hope my kids learn that from me.
As I stood at my Dad’s bedside the Lord took over the conversation. I was now on assignment from heaven. As a pastor, I had been in this position many times before. I know when God is talking. I began to read the 23rd Psalm to Dad. When I finished reading I stopped not knowing what to do next. Then an unplanned question came out, “Dad, do you know the Lord?”
It seemed like such a crazy question, but I knew I was being led by the Spirit. Dad attended the church I pastored for 5 years in Montana. He heard me ask other people the same question. Why was I compelled to ask this of him now? Then I saw the tears begin to flow from his eyes. There was a long pause. I asked, “Dad, of all the times I gave an invitation for people to receive God’s forgiveness you never thought of asking the Lord yourself?” He answered, “No, I was afraid.”
In all of my life I never knew my father to be afraid of anything or any man. I knew I had been awakened by the Holy Spirit to meet my Dad in his hospital room and conduct some eternal business. Like I had done hundreds of times before with other people, I began a prayer with my Dad asking him to repeat after me words of invitation and acceptance of God’s forgiveness. Dad repeated the fragments of each sentence with a calm and peace that filled the room as tears continued to flow from his eyes.
After Dad voiced his amen, he had a request. By now several relatives were in town knowing dad was near death and wanting to have their last goodbyes. Dad said, “I want you to call all the relatives and have them come down to my room this morning. I need you to talk to them for me.” Dad could hardly talk without great pain due to his dying lungs. Every breath was labored and inhaling caused sharp pains to rip through his body. He winced with each breath. He said,” I want you to tell them what I did this morning. I can’t talk, but you tell them to get right with God.”
Within a couple of hours Dad’s bed was ringed with relatives as I shared the events that took place earlier that morning. Dad looked peaceful and confident as I shared. His looked around the room and met the eyes of each person who stood there that day. In all my life I never heard my dad pray or really discuss these kinds of things. On this morning Billy Graham would have been honored to be in the presence of this new 80 year old evangelist name Charlie Wayne Elkins.
In a few days we returned home to Oregon and a month later I got the call that Dad had passed away. As I thought back on those last few months I realized how important it was to have heeded the nudge of God’s Spirit to get up and go to Dad’s hospital bed at that early hour. But there was something else God was doing in me. He was showing me that He hears every prayer.
My dad died in my 39th year of life. It wasn’t until a few years after Dad passed away that the Lord reminded me of that night long ago when I was a little boy crying at the thought of my father’s death. God reminded me that He heard the prayers of a little boy who cried himself to sleep asking God to keep his father alive until that little boy became an “old man” of 39.